9 Sets of Seriously Accomplished Sisters
Never underestimate the power of sisterhood. Some of history’s most impressive accomplishments can be traced back to two (or more) ladies who shared a special sibling bond. In honor of National Sisters Day on August 7, here are nine sets of sisters worth celebrating.
1. VIRGINIA WOOLF AND VANESSA BELL
Virginia is undoubtedly the more famous (and more closely scrutinized) of the two sisters, but older sister Vanessa (on the left, above) was an accomplished artist in her own right who provided a stabilizing influence for her mercurial sibling. After the death of their father in 1904, Vanessa took charge of the family, moving them from an upper-class London neighborhood to the more rough-and-tumble Bloomsbury district. There, Vanessa and Virginia became founding members of the Bloomsbury Group, an influential gathering of artists and intellectuals. Bell, a painter and interior designer, had her quarrels with Woolf, but the two prized their bond above all else. Bell supported Woolf through numerous breakdowns, and the two also collaborated often, as when Bell provided the cover art for Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
2. TRUNG TRAC AND TRUNG NHI
The Trung sisters are regarded as heroines of Vietnam for their rebellion against the Chinese nearly 2000 years ago. After Trung Trac’s husband, a nobleman planning to overthrow their Chinese occupiers, was assassinated, Trac took up his cause. She joined forces with her younger sister, Trung Nhi, and together the two raised an army that in 39 CE routed the Chinese at Lien Lau. Within a year, the Trung sisters had captured 65 cities in what is today northern Vietnam, and they'd proclaimed themselves queens of a territory that extended from the city of Hue all the way to southern China. Chinese forces quickly moved to squash the rebellion, defeating the sisters in battles near modern day Hanoi and Son Tay. Rather than be captured or killed by the enemy, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi are said to have drowned themselves in the Red River in 43 CE.
3. THE BRONTË SISTERS
As children, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë wrote stories together about fantasy worlds with names like Angria and Gondal. As they grew older, each sister subsequently left home: Anne became a live-in tutor to a wealthy family, while Emily and Charlotte moved to Brussels. In 1845, all three returned home after the death of their aunt Elizabeth, and picked up writing together once again. In 1846, they published Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, a volume of poetry they’d written collectively under pen names. Over the next three years, while living at Haworth, each sister would write her defining work. In 1847, Charlotte published Jane Eyre while Emily brought Wuthering Heights to life. In 1848, Anne published The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
4. SADIE AND BESSIE DELANY
The Delany sisters were renowned for their longevity, and for providing a compelling account of their experience as black women across an American century. Raised in Raleigh, North Carolina to a father born into slavery, Sadie and Bessie moved to New York to pursue careers at a time when doing so was very difficult for women, and even more so for African American women. Bessie earned her degree in dentistry from Columbia University in 1923 and set up practice in Harlem, where she charged $2 for a cleaning and $5 for a filling. Sadie, meanwhile, earned a master's of education degree at Columbia University and became the city’s first black home economics teacher. In 1993, the two published a memoir, Having Our Say, that chronicled their more than 100 years. The book became a bestseller and a required text in many classrooms, and inspired a follow-up book two years later. By then, they lived together in a house together in Mount Vernon, NY. "She is my right arm," Sadie said about her sister. Bessie died in 1995 at age 104, and Sadie in 1999 at age 109.
5. THE MIRABAL SISTERS
Born in the city of Salcedo in the Dominican Republic, Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa Mirabal fought against the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. At the urging of Minerva, the three started a group called the Movement of the Fourteenth of June, and began handing out brochures with the names of Trujillo’s victims. They also stockpiled weapons and took part in other covert, highly dangerous activities. Trujillo jailed the Mirabal sisters along with their husbands, who were also part of the rebellion, but was forced to release the sisters due to pressure at home and abroad. On November 25, 1960, after visiting their husbands in prison, the sisters were stopped along their drive home and beaten to death by Trujillo’s henchmen. The murders galvanized the opposition to Trujillo, culminating in his assassination the next year. Today, the Mirabal sisters, known as “Las Mariposas” or “The Butterflies,” are viewed as heroes of the Dominican Republic. Their plight inspired the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, celebrated every year on November 25.
6. LILLIAN AND DOROTHY GISH
The Gish sisters were marquee names of the silent film era and pioneers in the craft of acting. Born in Ohio, the two scored their big break following an audition with D.W. Griffith at Biograph Studios. Griffith reportedly fired a revolver over their heads, and liked their reactions so much, he signed them on the spot. The sisters appeared together in numerous silent films like The Unseen Guest, Sisters, and Orphans of the Storm. Lillian, with her fragile demeanor conveying childlike innocence, became the bigger star, appearing mostly in dramatic films, while Dorothy acted primarily in comedies. Nevertheless, the two always expressed a mutual admiration for each other’s work, and became very close late in life. “I couldn’t make people laugh,” Lillian said in an interview. “But Dorothy could make them cry and laugh, so therefore she was the better actress than I was.” Dorothy’s acting career tapered off until her death in 1968, while Lillian continued to act in movies, television, and stage productions well into the 1980s. She died in 1987 at age 99.
7. SARAH AND ANGELINA GRIMKE
Born into a wealthy family of South Carolina landowners, the Grimke sisters could have enjoyed the privileged lives of southern belles. But the horrors of slavery they’d witnessed while growing up so disturbed them that they devoted their lives to the abolitionist cause. They became the first female members of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and in 1837 they began lecturing throughout the northeast—often to mixed-gender crowds, which was revolutionary at the time. Historians credit Angelina as the more gifted speaker; in 1838, she became the first woman to address a legislative body, in Massachusetts. Sarah, meanwhile, was the more persuasive writer. Her "Letters on the Equality of the Sexes" channeled the sisters’ equally forceful fight for gender equality, imploring readers to "permit women to stand upright on the ground which God has designed us to occupy."
8. ANN AND NANCY WILSON
The band Heart lit up the '70s and '80s with hits like "Magic Man," "Barracuda," and "What About Love." At its core were sisters Ann and Nancy, who channeled a love for rock 'n' roll forged in their childhood. Born into a music-loving family, the two began playing together after Ann received an acoustic guitar as a gift. The sisters quickly learned Nancy was the better instrumentalist, Ann the vocalist. Ann responded to a newspaper ad for a singer in the early '70s, and tried to persuade Nancy, who was finishing up high school, to join this new band, Heart, with her. "Ann and I were always going to end up playing in a band together," Nancy said in an interview. In 1974, they joined forces and propelled Heart to chart-topping success. The band is still playing today, and has sold 35 million records across four decades.
9. VENUS AND SERENA WILLIAMS
Both of the Williams sisters have enjoyed stellar individual careers, with numerous titles and many months spent atop the world rankings. Equally impressive is their doubles play, garnering 14 Grand Slam titles, including their latest one this summer, as well as three Olympic gold medals (they each also have an Olympic gold in singles play). Born just 15 months apart, Venus and Serena learned to play on the public courts of Los Angeles, and their competitiveness with each other spurred their development. “We always made each other better,” Serena has said. When they play together these days, that competitiveness turns seamlessly into cooperation. "She’s definitely the boss out there," Serena said in a recent interview. To which Venus added: "Well I’m the older sister, so it kind of falls on me."